By Jannette J. Witmyer,
Special to the AFRO

Towanda R. Taylor was suddenly unemployed. After utilizing the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) to care for her father, she was out of a job- one she had worked for a decade. 

Taylor faced many options. She could give up, she could cry or she could use the setback as a launching pad.

In the end, she chose the latter and decided she would never again allow herself to be at the mercy of an employer. 

Today, Taylor is CEO of Second Chance Behavioral Health Services, a mental health facility that offers substance abuse and psychiatric rehabilitation services.

She has an established track record as a successful and caring businesswoman- and she’s put in the work to get there.

As the late Carnegie Mellon University, Professor Randy Pausch said in his Last Lecture, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” 

Taylor’s first reaction to losing her job was wanting to never be in that position again. “From that point on, I decided that I was never ever going to allow anybody else to determine how I eat or feed my family,” she explains. “He let me go after being there for 10 years.”

Taylor says she’d always heard that when people start a business, it should be something they love and something they’d do for free. She admits that her first thought went to her love for shopping, “But you can’t do that for free,” she laughs.

While caring for her dad, she enrolled in an assisted living management course to learn how to best care for him. When he passed away, she realized that she’d been doing the thing that she loved and would do for free, all along – caring for her elder.

“When my dad passed away, it was like a light bulb went off. I thought, ‘I really liked doing that.’ So, I opened my assisted living and named it after my dad, Fleming H. Taylor Assisted Living Homes.”

It was not an easy feat.

“I opened it up with unemployment checks and during the process of trying to get this business started, I lost everything. I lost my apartment. I lost my car. I was living off unemployment checks and all the money I acquired went into rent and getting this assisted living house up and running.”

All of the sacrifices paid off when Taylor was able to open her first assisted living home in 2010 Over the course of the next few years, she expanded to a total of five homes that tended exclusively to the needs of the elderly.

As the state’s opioid crisis began to establish itself, Taylor began to receive referrals seeking transitional housing for recovering substance abusers. Coincidently, referrals for elders decreased during this time. Taylor had no knowledge of drug addiction and refused to accept the referrals. Her only frame of reference was the daily scene around Lexington Market in Baltimore at certain times of day- and that did not leave a favorable impression. 

After two years of refusing the referrals, she accepted a young woman who changed her entire perception, Dana Gaither. 

“She was amazing. She was helping me with the old people and she has stayed with me,” Taylor explains. “It turned my thought of people with drug addiction problems around because they’re really good people. They just went down a different road. They have a lot of skills.”

As her views shifted, Taylor accepted several additional referrals and began to consider opening a substance abuse treatment center. Her elderly charges in assisted living were starting to transition and the emotional toll of losing them had begun to wear on her. Plus, she felt that her residents in recovery weren’t getting what they needed. 

“They all were going to programs, but they continued to get high,” she said. 

Taylor would ask, “If you’re going to this program every day- yet you’re still getting high- what is it that you’re missing?”

Taylor saw that many drug addicts were receiving care for their addiction but were “not getting any mental health treatment” or basic services. 

“How can you work on your substance abuse issue, if you’re not getting any mental health treatment?” she quipped. “How can I work on your inside, if your outside looks bad?’

Determined to find the answers, with Gaither’s guidance, Taylor approached several providers seeking information. However, she found that members of the then male-dominated substance abuse treatment community were unwilling to take her seriously or help. 

Undaunted, Taylor says, “I went online, and I started doing research. I read how to do it, myself. It was trial and error and I probably could have opened a whole year earlier if somebody had helped me.”

“I learned, and Dana helped me learn,” she said. “That’s how I got into drug treatment. Second Chance came about because no one would give me my first chance when trying to get started.”

Determined and aware, Taylor says she transitioned to providing substance abuse treatment in 2018. 

“I wanted my center to be different. When the clients come through the door, we let them know this is just not just a center. We want to get you well, but we also want to give you an opportunity,” she said. “A lot of these people have skills. When they have completed the program, I give them jobs.”

The majority of the center’s van drivers are former clients and there is a Second Chance construction team that takes care of the program’s network of residential locations. 

In the summer, the Second Chance car-washing and grass-cuttings teams get to work. And they are paid for their work.

“I pay them, and they can work other contracts that they may get. So, it’s not just a treatment center. You can come in here sick and you can leave a viable person, giving back to society- but it’s totally up to you.”

Taylor’s determination and resolve to turn a bad hand into a winner gave her a second chance, and her Second Chance is giving the same to others.
For additional information about the residential and outpatient services offered by Second Chance Behavioral Health Services, visit https://www.secondchancebhs.com/ or call 410-505-0013.

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Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO